Batang Ai, Sarawak, a Challenge Worth Taking

The easiest and quickest way to get to Batang Ai, Sarawak (pronounced sa-Ra-wa) in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, is a six-hour bus ride from Kuching. After the first few hours of hitting potholes and bouncing over gravel roads, the only vindication is that at the end of the long tortuous trail, you are in the middle of the jungle and experiencing Iban lifestyle. And for those who say “ been there, done that”, this trip is filled with unexpected and wondrous adventures that even the most jaded peripatetic traveller will find new, colourful and very exciting.

The 275 km ride ends at a small cabin, the area’s terminal. Waiting for us on the dock of the Batang Ai River is Jo, our river navigator, and a long narrow boat , logically called a longboat, which seats up to eight passengers.

A tropical rainstorm pelts down on our unprotected heads for the hour long voyage. Wet through and through, we’re given the warmest welcome by the Iban community of the Sepay Longhouse. “Lalu soh rumah” (welcome to our house) greets the first of our hosts.

After a climb up the rungs of a narrow ladder to a residence built on stilts,a longhouse, I’m grateful to see no sign of ‘antu pala”- human skulls. The Iban, head-hunters in days gone by, no longer need these as a symbol of bravery.

In fact, I’m surprised how the Ibans have adjusted to Western tradition as they line up to shake our hands. We remove our shoes which is their custom. Walking on the bamboo flooring is no easy matter. The rounds and bumps of the many various sized bamboo poles don’t seem to adjust to my feet.or vice I let out small cries of pain. I note the youngest toddler has no trouble as she runs up and down the long open-sided corridor, giggling at my discomfort.

The area has 50 doors at Sepaya Longhouse and that means up to 200 people live in this longhouse. As I peek over a long balcony railing, I see that the Ibans are rice planters. Also cocoa, pepper and other vegetables are grown in enough quantities for the community’s needs.

An elder wearing just enough material to keep him from becoming a Chippendale dancer, beckons me to sit because there will be a performance for the visitors. I remember just in time, that stretching my legs would be an insult. I shift and sit cross-legged as the performance begins with the eldest dancing first.

A very tattooed man, who probably looks older than he is, dances with the grace of a butterfly, his smile never leaving his face even while he does the Ngajat, a warrior dance. The last dance is by a young girl, about 13 years old, who seems totally disinterested at this presentation which she probably has been demanded to perform.

After being offered a small glass of homemade utak – rice wine- the residents are happy to pose for pictures.

At the end of the Longhouse, there’s a bustle of activity as the women place their home made handicrafts on floor mats. Summpit (a blowpipe traditionally use by head hunters), painted terabai (shields), Temilah (the blow pipe dart container), Tikai ( a woven mat), Kandi baskets from bamboo and neckwear, all are for sale. In the meantime, youngsters are amused and act like pros when I ask them to pose for photos. They smile and preen with great expertise –an indication that lifestyle and tradition are changing in the jungles of Malaysia.

For those seeking new and easy challenges, the visit to the Ibans and their ‘homes’ remain one of my very favourite travel memories.